In The Wailing, a small South Korean village is beset by an evil spirit, and suddenly the villagers start dying in what appear to be outbursts of domestic violence. The killers—mothers, fathers, children—appear possessed. (The local police fear it’s some bad mushrooms causing people to go temporarily out of their heads.) Meanwhile, rumors are swirling about an older Japanese man who’s recently moved into the area. But for one of the police officers, it takes the possession of his 11-year-old daughter before he can accept that something supernatural is at work.
Horror movies, even ones that flirt with more profound themes about the supernatural, often seem disposable in their exploitive violence and gore. That’s where The Wailing, which was directed by Na Hong-jin, differs. The Wailing becomes increasingly caught up in the idea of a spiritual realm, where good and bad spirits do battle over human souls. What feels at first like a traditional possession flick becomes rich and awful and terrifying as it grapples with good and evil on a grand scale.
The film reaches a kind of pinnacle when the possessed girl’s family summons a shaman, whose very complicated ritual, designed to drive out the evil spirit, takes on a semi-documentary substance and earthiness. He dresses in all-white garb and begins shaking bells in the face of the screaming child, he chants loudly and long while his assistants beat incessantly on drums—more noise to annoy the malicious inhabitant. It’s in this scene, where spiritual belief and physical practice come together in strange and tangible ways, that The Wailing transcends the genre, becoming poetic in its fierce and terrifying grasp of the spiritual, in all the good and bad ways we understand that word.
There are numerous possession flicks (namely, The Exorcist, although it seems like there are three or four of them a year in more recent times) in which filmmakers depict/exploit religious rites performed to cast out demons, and those scenes certainly provide verisimilitude. (And The Exorcist is an effective horror film, to be sure.) But The Wailing approaches religious rites with caution, where in most possession movies they are an absolute form of cure against evil spirits: In The Wailing there are competing interests at work, and we are never sure who’s really evil and who’s really good. Thus the shaman and his smells-and-bells approach to exorcism is a sight to behold, but not necessarily a legitimate cure to this little girl’s troubles.
I prefer the ambiguity of this film. Na Hong-jin, who also wrote the script, makes us believe in the supernatural, but he doesn’t presuppose that religion will make everything right in the end. He also has much to say about human nature in the face of tragedy and fear. When Jong-Goo (Kwak Do-won), the possessed girl’s father, leads a posse of angry fellow villagers to the mountain cabin where the Japanese man lives, it’s the terrifying fury of a mob that pounds on his door, ready to tear him to shreds. But we’re still in the dark about the Japanese man. Is he really evil incarnate, or merely an unfortunate outsider, branded a creep by mere human prejudice?
What will it take for us to turn on our neighbors without proof? At what point do we turn back toward religion—or medievalism, as some might say—when science and rationality are no longer enough? And as intense and, occasionally, terrifying as the movie can be (e.g. the finale, where we come face to face with the Devil himself, in one of the most intensely freaky moments I’ve ever experienced in a movie), this film doesn’t sledge-hammer us with unsatisfying answers. Rather, it lives in the terrifying unknown, just like the world in which we live. Indeed, The Wailing is a horror movie for our time.
With Hwang Jung-min, Jun Kunimura (as the Japanese stranger), Chun Woo-hee, and Kim Whan-hee as the girl, Hyo-jin.